Book review · short fiction collection

Book review: The Starlit Wood

The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe

the-starlit-wood-9781481456135Description: (from Dominik Parisien’s website)

Once upon a time in the desert, in a tower, on a spaceship, in the Other Country

For centuries, storytellers have crafted timeless tales that have always found a place in our hearts. Here, a new generation of critically acclaimed, award-winning writers have taken up their mantle and shaped traditional and extraordinary fairy tales into something startling and electrifying.

From castles to canyons, a post-human landscape to a pixelated dungeon, from the far future to fantastical realms, The Starlit Wood transforms seventeen stories you thought you knew and takes you on a journey at once unexpected and familiar across time, space, and amazing new worlds.

I have had this book sitting on my selves for over a year now, since last Christmas. I didn’t get to it until now because I’m more of a mood reader and sometimes I just wait for the *right time*, even if I knew I was going to love this.

This anthology takes root in a lot a different tales, some very well known thanks to Disney’s adaptations or other movies and shows, while others were more obscure to me or even came from cultures I was not familiar with. I love that it used many of these and made me actually discover two stories: the original and the retold ones.

I loved how this anthology managed to blend feminist retellings and fun or dark twists on famous tales. I loved the emphasis most stories had on women, women helping one another and fighting their usual lack of agency in old tales.
I love how the cover hinted at more than “just” fantasy, and indeed: I loved the stories set in the future, in space or even in our era.

What made me love this anthology even more were the author’s note at the end of each stories. Almost all of them were really insightful in the writing process, figuring out their idea and sometimes how they related to these stories. It really added a lot more depth to some of these and even made me appreciate better the ones I had no strong feelings for.

This really made me even more interested in reading other books fairy tales related, either originals one or retellings.

My favourites were:

  • The Other Thea by Theodora Goss,
  • Seasons of Glass and Iron by Amal El-Mohtar,
  • Giants in the Sky by Max Gladstone,
  • The Briar and the Rose by Marjorie M. Liu,
  • Pearl by Aliette de Bodard

Here’s some thoughts and/or description for each stories:

In the Desert Like a Bone by Seanan McGuire
A story of revenge and western/desert-style Little red riding hood.

Underground by Karin Tidbeck
While I didn’t know the Prince Hatt Underground story and was a bit confused by this retelling, the author’s note was a really good addition to make me understand her choice and the way she tweaked it!
Content warning: rape

Even the Crumbs Were Delicious by Daryl Gregory
A Hansel and Gretel-like story, on drugs! Very absurd and fun.
(From the author’s note, this is set in the same world as his novel Afterparty, a novel that has been recommended to me a while back now that I think of it!)
Content warning: mention of suicide, abusive parent, drug use

The Super Ultra Duchess of Fedora Forest by Charlie Jane Anders
I didn’t know the original tale (The Mouse, The Bird, and the Sausage) here either. Humans have been wiped out and animals/things start creating their own civilizations. In the author’s own words: “a kind of Adventure Time fanfic”. Super great!

Familiaris by Genevieve Valentine
WOW this story hit me hard. It was all about female agency, fear and hate of pregnancy and motherhood. It was hard to read, frightening but also freeing. I’d say it could be a difficult read for someone wanting children and being in a completely opposite mindset, but could be enlightening for some since such views are not often shown or written about.

Seasons of Glass and Iron by Amal El-Mohtar
This story blends two tales together and celebrates healing and women helping one another. It gave me a similar feel than Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle. Obviously, I loved it a lot.

Badgirl, the Deadman, and the Wheel of Fortune by Catherynne M. Valente
I had loved this author’s piece in a recent anthology so I’d been looking forward to this one but unfortunately I didn’t like it that much. Though I liked the notes that showed how personal to the author this was.
content warning: drug use, child abuse

Penny For a Match, Mister? by Garth Nix
I would have been more interested in knowing what happens after this story here! A story of revenge, of possession and supernatural forces.

Some Wait by Stephen Graham Jones
Uhh this was really sad and I didn’t much like it, though I couldn’t sleep until I’d finished it and I liked the way it was told: like the entire community affected was telling the story about the disappearance of the children. The Pied Piper of Hamelin in an age of Nanny Cams and video games.
content warning: kidnapping

The Thousand Eyes by Jeffrey Ford
There was a painter involved and ghosts? It fell flat for me unfortunately. When it almost happened with the other stories, the notes from the author at the end ultimately made it more interesting but for this one it didn’t help.

Giants in the Sky by Max Gladstone
Jack and the Beanstalk + space + paperwork, this was awesome! This story had the most original formating and was a delight to read.

The Briar and the Rose by Marjorie M. Liu
A brown woman, adept of the sword, falls in love with a cursed young woman. I liked this story a lot and how it reinvented Sleeping Beauty.
content warning: rape, suicidal ideation

The Other Thea by Theodora Goss
Graduate from a witchcraft school, Thea is coming back to find something that was lost to her. Magic and technology, portal fantasy, coming to term with adulthood and depression, this was my FAVOURITE story. It really had everything I could have wished for in a story and I couldn’t believe my eyes as I was reading. Every Harry Potter fan will be delighted.

When I Lay Frozen by Margo Lanagan
Retelling of Thumbelina, this was very disturbing to me due to all the sex stuff but was again saved by the author’s note that gave me a new look on what she was trying to convey.

Pearl by Aliette de Bodard
Ohhh I really loved this space opera story more than I expected when I first started it!

The Tale of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle by Sofia Samatar
This was a very interesting take on the way a story is told, forgotten, reimagined!

Reflected by Kat Howard
Science, mirrors, experiments, friendship… This piece was short but very engaging and did an awesome job on taking a fairy tale element and making it something else entirely!

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
This was the longest story, the one that felt the most like a true fairy tale, like this might have been the true story all along. Retelling of Rumpelstilskin where the main character is a moneylender’s daughter taking matters into her own hands and catching the interest of a fair folk. I liked it a lot and am very very excited about this story being turned into a full-length novel (see Spinning Silver on goodreads.)

Anthologies are usually a mixed bag and often end up being a 3/5 for me because there’s always stories that hit or miss. It did happen here too but the ones that hit did it on such a scale and were so abundant that it is very easy to overlook the ones I didn’t love. Definitely a 4,5/5 here with many stories that I’ll want to reread in the future. I’m glad I have the gorgeous hardback edition looking like a real old fairy tale book, inside and out! The lettering starting each story was particularly gorgeous.

Having loved this anthology, I went to look for more anthologies of fairy tales retellings and found about Beyond the Woods: Fairy Tales Retold edited by Paula Guran that I will most likely read some time in the future.
I also remembered about this anthology that I really liked : Unburied Fables edited by Creative Aces Publishing reinvents these stories with only queer characters!

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